By Kristen Taketa
JEFFERSON CITY • Two votes made a decade apart by the Missouri Board of Education point to a turnaround of St. Louis Public Schools — one that civic leaders hope will boost efforts to revitalize the city.
On Tuesday morning, the state board voted unanimously to give full accreditation to the city’s school system. In doing so, state education leaders praised its stable leadership and continued improvement.
“In less than a decade, what they’ve achieved is extraordinary,” said Mike Jones, a member of the state board. Jones called it an exceptional day, not just for district leaders “but mostly those kids, teachers and staff who made this happen.”
It was a far cry from 10 years ago, when the city school system was deemed by the state to be failing its 32,000 students on a massive scale.
The district was graduating just 56 percent of the students it was supposed to. District leaders were staring down a budget hole more than $24 million deep that had been dug out of a $52 million surplus just five years before. The district would force out or say goodbye to six superintendents in five years. The district was meeting only five of 14 state accreditation standards.
In 2007, the Missouri Board of Education decided things were so bad that it had no choice but to strip the district of its accreditation, its basic badge of adequacy.
The day the state board cast that vote, 150 students and parents piled into the board room in protest, expressing fear that their education, coming from an unaccredited school district, could soon be worth nothing in the eyes of many.
That same year, the state decided to install what would be the first of its kind in Missouri: a three-member appointed board to replace the district’s local elected board. The experiment was scrutinized from the start.
But Tuesday, state school leaders expressed confidence that the city school system has experienced a legitimate turnaround.
“Certainly, we’ve seen what leadership stability has done for this district,” said Chris Neale, an assistant commissioner of education. “It doesn’t matter which standard you look at. We’ve seen positive achievement across the board in the past four years.”
The state board’s vote for full accreditation returns to the district a level of confidence it has not seen in many years — one that many say could remove a shadow of stigma that has hovered over the city as a place to live and raise a family.
“Let’s not kid ourselves. The fact that this district has been unaccredited has been used against us in economic deals,” former Gov. Jay Nixon, who left office this week, said at a press conference Thursday celebrating the district’s progress. “This is going to be a real shot in the arm economically for the region.”
‘Not going to stop’
The State Board said it has seen significant progress toward goals for academics and other measures of success. The board makes accreditation decisions based on a number of factors that include test scores, attendance and the graduation rate. The state’s accreditation system values progress and student growth, in addition to actual academic performance.
Today, the high-poverty, majority-African-American district has a 72 percent graduation rate and 95 percent attendance rate. The district had a $19.2 million surplus in June. The district has improved its students’ test scores year after year.
Still, Superintendent Kelvin Adams and the appointed Special Administrative Board acknowledge that the district is not meeting its academic goals.
“It’s really about the young people … who deserve to have the kind of education we all want for our kids,” Adams said after the board’s vote. “We’re not going to stop until every single kid can read, every single kid has that opportunity.”
About 37 percent of students who took state tests last year scored proficient or advanced in English, and 26 percent did so in math. Only 12 percent of district high school graduates who were tested scored at or above the national average on the ACT.
There are other issues that also hold the district back, such as high teacher turnover and pension costs.
The district has been losing thousands of students — and, along with them, state money — to suburban schools, private schools and city charter schools. Mayor Francis Slay has nurtured charter schools, which are also public schools, as an alternative to the city’s long-unaccredited school district.
District enrollment dove to just 22,500 students this year from 32,000 students when the district lost accreditation.
Adams said it’s too early to know whether reaccreditation will help stem the out-migration of students and convince St. Louisans to view the district in a better light.
“I think we have to fight every single day to do that and change perception,” Adams said after Tuesday’s vote. “But I think this is one way of helping to do that.”
Nobody has been given more credit for the turnaround than Adams and the Special Administrative Board. The conviction that, together, they were the turning point in the district’s troubled history is shared by district advocates and those still dissatisfied with the district’s rate of progress.
The Special Administrative Board launched a successful tax campaign last year, sending the district its first surge of revenue in 25 years. It closed about 18 schools suffering from enrollment loss and poor academic performance while opening 10 selective-admission schools.
But board CEO Rick Sullivan has said hiring Adams is the board’s greatest accomplishment.
Adams’ tenure of nine years in a position that typically sees turnover every three years makes him one of the longest-running superintendents in the St. Louis region. The simple fact that he has stayed with the district, while his national marketability grew, earns him genuine respect from those he works with, including the appointed board.
“The stability, commitment and foresight of our superintendent have been immeasurable, and one of the main reasons this school system continues to achieve,” said Richard Gaines, a member of the district’s Special Administrative Board.
Both Adams and the Special Administrative Board are under contract to stay until 2019. But the district will eventually have to return to elected control.
Members of the elected St. Louis School Board, who have watched from the sidelines for the past decade, believe the return of full accreditation eliminates one more obstacle to their return.
“We’re really hoping this serves as a catalyst to move toward a transition,” said Susan Jones, president of the elected board.
State law says nothing about how or when the switch should happen.
Neale, the assistant commissioner of education, said the state board must now consider how to decide when the appointed board has fulfilled its purpose.
Regardless, Adams, who is 60, says he will not leave even if the Special Administrative Board is transitioned out before then.
“Because you get a new boss tomorrow, do you stop working? No. You keep working and doing what they tell you to do,” Adams said in an interview. “I have a contract until 2019. I’ve committed to my contract.”